Dr. Bruce Mabley is a former Canadian diplomat having served in the Middle East, and is the director of the Mackenzie-Papineau think tank in Montreal. Yasser Dhouib is a political and human-rights activist and a member of the Canadian Observatory for Freedoms and Rights.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated at the Islamophobia summit in July that “on the world stage, our government will always stand up for peace and democracy, human rights, freedom of expression and freedom of belief.” On the campaign trail, he proudly declared that he would never recognize a Taliban government, on the basis of human rights.
On the other hand, Canadian influence on the world stage is crumbling, witness a second consecutive failed bid for a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council. Canada’s selective attitude on human rights and democracy has harmed our global influence, notably in the Middle East. Tunisia is the most recent example. While the rest of the world is paying attention to a coup attempt in that country, Ottawa remains unconcerned about the Arab Spring’s only remaining democracy.
Tunisia’s revolt in 2010 against its former long-serving president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali inspired many, and the Arab Spring permanently destroyed the myth that there cannot be a viable popular movement for democracy in the Arab world.
But since the advent of the Arab Spring, or what is often called the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, democracy and freedom remain unfulfilled objectives. Contrary to the promises of a better life, the situation on the ground is marked by disorder, economic collapse, social unrest and a clear lack of national consensus on how to proceed.
After the events of December 2010 and the exile of Ben Ali to Saudi Arabia, a new parliament was elected and a new constitution was enacted. However, the tourism industry was damaged severely by two Isis-linked terrorist attacks on foreigners in 2015, the economy deteriorated and the government’s debt grew. Unemployment rose, and young Tunisians looked for opportunities elsewhere. Most recently, COVID-19 has thrown any hope of recovery into disarray.
In reaction, once-popular Tunisian President Kais Saied took the dangerous measure in July of firing his prime minister Hichem Mechichi, as well as the ministers of justice and the interior. In addition, he unconstitutionally suspended parliament indefinitely in an unprecedented act of defiance of elected officials. These draconian measures, according to the country’s constitution, represent a clear overreach of the executive power.
Tunisia’s unrest has also been exacerbated by suspicions of foreign meddling by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. These regimes do not want the Arab Spring to reverberate in their own streets, fearing the people would be compelled to act. In other Arab Spring nations such as Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s intervention resulted in a devastating rollback of popular will, a revived democratic deficit and the imposition of a military dictatorship. Such meddling in Libya has led to a failed state and years of proxy wars.
Yet despite the international community condemning the decisions of Tunisia’s president and calling for a swift return to Tunisia’s democratic path, Canada has stayed mute.
As Mr. Trudeau reaffirms his mandate, the subject of the country’s “principled” foreign policy should be raised. Canada’s approach should not be to selectively support democracy in some nations while dismissing democracy in others, or to discuss liberties and values in isolation. We need to commit strongly to calling out reversals of democracy and taking concrete measures to defend it, wherever people’s rights are under threat.
The legitimacy of the Tunisian Parliament should be recognized by Canada, and diplomatic connections with parliamentarians should be maintained. In November, Canada will attend the Francophonie Summit in Tunis. Canada should use this international forum to hold the President accountable and demand that he restore the Parliament and cease centralization of powers in his office.
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